Backstory: The unvarnished Gore Vidal
It was just an ordinary day in the journalistic trenches when I got the call. "Gore Vidal has a new book out ... would you like to interview him?" said the voice on the other end of the phone, a well-known Los Angeles publicist.Skip to next paragraph
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"Isn't he the guy famous for saying, "It's not enough to succeed. Others must fail?" I asked.
"That's the one," she said.
"The one who said, 'I had never wanted to meet most of the people I had met, and the fact that I never got to know most of them took dedication and steadfastness on my part?"
"That's him," she answered.
"Sounds like a lovely opportunity," I said. "I'll take it."
OK, it didn't happen quite that way. But like everyone – like some people, anyway – I thought I knew who Gore Vidal was, at least on the surface: literary lion, scold, verbal jester, and political screed writer. To double-check my memory, I went on Wikipedia (just to make sure the upstart website was up to snuff):
Author of 25 novels, six plays, 200 essays, and several screenplays. Check. An early novel, "The City and the Pillar," and a later sexual farce, "Myra Breckinridge," credited with pushing the envelope of sexuality in modern literature. Check. Historical novels ranging from the Roman Empire ("Julian") to the birth of the American republic ("Burr") garnered wide respect among historians, and his "United States: Essays 1952-1992" won the 1993 National Book Award. Tried politics in the distant past. Check, check, and check.
Now 81, Mr. Vidal recalls the second half of his life in the just-released, "Point to Point Navigation." I wanted to pick the brain of someone who had been around that long and written that much. But how do you bone up to interview a whiplash-fast wit who has skewered some of the highest-octane intellectuals around? In nightly TV debates at the 1968 political conventions, Vidal famously called William F. Buckley Jr. a "pro-crypto-Nazi," got sued for it, and apologized to the judge by saying: "It was a modest slip of the tongue, I was searching for the word 'fascist.' "
His other stock in trade is trafficking in obscure factoids that can't be disputed without the Library of Congress handy on microfiche. ("Democrat Samuel Tilden in 1876 ... got 264,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, forcing recounts in Oregon, South Carolina, and Louisiana.")
Practicing sage facial expressions that say, "Well, of course you and I both know that, but..." I approached Vidal's palm-ensconced house in the Hollywood Hills on the Thursday before the US midterm elections. Arriving early, I scribbled details of his living room: oriental rugs, Greek busts, bulb-lit oil paintings, plush antique furniture.
Fashionably late, Vidal arrived in T-shirt and olive robe, tousled hair, carrying a brown wooden cane and aided by an assistant. Remarking that he had recently strained the middle finger of his right hand, his opening remark was characteristically Vidalian: "I've injured my social finger," he said, expressionless but pausing as if for a "badaboom." "I'm having someone look at it later today."
He sat down and stared to the left, as if to tolerate what was about to come. I cooked up an ice-breaker question – regrettable, in retrospect – courtesy of an old congressional campaign poster he had of himself on the wall. "I don't see your name on any of next Tuesday's ballots ... does that mean you've given up on politics?" I said, with what I thought was obvious irony.
"Well, I don't know why I would be on any ballots; I'm not running for anything," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Note to self," I wrote in the margin of a pad. "Move quickly to final questions ... could be short interview."
Vidal – raconteur, controversialist, conversationalist – was generous with his time in the end (90 minutes), but was not about to be drawn out casually. He shut me down on subjects as varied as Bush ("I've written exhaustively about that..."), Arnold Schwarzenegger ("ditto"), and Katie Couric ("Why would I want to talk about her?").